Anthony Rizzo's 'throwback' approach at the plate setting the tone for Cubs

Anthony Rizzo's 'throwback' approach at the plate setting the tone for Cubs

It's becoming tougher and tougher to tell Anthony Rizzo and Joey Votto apart.

Joe Maddon has seen a bit of Votto in Rizzo for years and that has never been the case more than the first couple months of the 2017 season.

The Cincinnati Reds first baseman has led the league in walks four times and on-base percentage five times. Rizzo has yet to accomplish either feat in his seven-year career, but he's taken his offensive profile to Votto levels this season.

Votto is the only player in baseball with a better walk-to-strikeout ratio among qualified hitters.

Rizzo has 39 walks compared to only 31 strikeouts, on pace for 102 free passess and 81 whiffs, both of which would easily surpass his previous career bests (78 walks, 105 strikeouts).

Since May 19 — a span of 89 plate appearances — Rizzo has struck out just five times while drawing 14 walks and posting a .438 on-base percentage. 

That's a stark contrast to the changes baseball has seen over the last couple years where strikeouts are at an all-time high as everybody focuses on exit velocity and hitting the ball in the air. Gone are the days where almost every guy choked up on the bat and tried to shorten his swing with two strikes to just put the ball in play.

"He takes it seriously," Maddon said. "He definitely is a throwback when it comes to that method. I think it's beautiful. Him and Votto within our division probably do that as well as anybody I've seen over the last several years.

"Really adapting to the count and not trying to do too much in the count. Literally taking what the pitcher is giving you at that point."

That approach helped the Cubs Sunday as Rizzo keyed the charge to bust out of their losing streak and offensive slump with a first-inning double on the 10th pitch of an at-bat against Antonio Senzatela. 

Rizzo got down in the count (1-2) before choking up and shortening up, fouling off four of the next six pitches before he got one he liked, depositing it into the right-field corner and giving the Cubs a much-needed lead and breath of fresh air.

He nearly accomplished the same thing Saturday when he reached out and blooped a two-strike pitch into shallow left field, bumping Kris Bryant to third base with only one out, but the Cubs failed to cash in on that scoring opportunity.

Maddon would like to see more Cubs players follow in Rizzo's footsteps, especially given the Cubs' offensive struggles this season.

Rizzo has already seemingly had an impact on Bryant — the reigning National League MVP — who has cut down on his strikeouts for the second straight season and is now walking more than ever.

"There's nothing wrong with choking up," Maddon said. "There's nothing wrong with shortening up. There's nothing with making adaptations during an at-bat in order to move the baseball. That's all appropriate. It's good.

"I love the fact that either the best or the second-best hitter on the team does those things. Even to the point where I love when minor-league guys watch him within our organization and hopefully wanna emulate him.

"It's a mindset, man. It's something that you have to be willing to do — understand it, understand why you're doing it. It was really a big part of the fabric of the game for a while among many players in the lineup. Now, it's just a couple guys that are able to do it."

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

The day after Kris Bryant suggested that first-time fatherhood and the dramatic reality of world events have changed how he looks at his future with the Cubs, general manager Jed Hoyer outlined why it might be all but moot.

Setting aside the fact that the Cubs aren’t focusing on contract extensions with anyone at this time of health and economic turmoil, the volatility and unpredictability of a raging COVID-19 pandemic in this country and its economic fallout have thrown even mid-range and long-term roster plans into chaos.

“This is without question the most difficult time we’ve ever had as far as projecting those things,” Hoyer said. “All season in projecting this year, you weren’t sure how many games we were going to get in. Projecting next season obviously has challenges, and who knows where the country’s going to be and the economy’s going to be.”

Bryant, a three-time All-Star and former MVP, is eligible for free agency after next season. He and the club have not engaged in extension talks for three years. And those gained little traction while it has looked increasingly likely since then that Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, would eventually take his star client to market — making Bryant a widely circulated name in trade talks all winter.

MORE: Scott Boras: Why Kris Bryant's free agency won't be impacted by economic crisis

The Cubs instead focused last winter on talks with All-Star shortstop Javy Báez, making “good” or little progress depending on which side you talked to on a given day — until the pandemic shut down everything in March.

Báez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are both also eligible for free agency after next season, with All-Star catcher Willson Contreras right behind them a year later.

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None has a multiyear contract, and exactly what the Cubs are willing to do about that even if MLB pulls off its 60-game plan this year is hard for even the team’s front office executives to know without knowing how hard the pandemic will continue to hammer America’s health and financial well-being into the winter and next year.

Even with a vaccine and treatments by then, what will job markets look like? The economy at large? The economy of sports? Will anyone want to gather with 40,000 others in a stadium to watch a game anytime soon?

And even if anyone could answer all those questions, who can be sure how the domino effect will impact salary markets for athletes?

“There’s no doubt that forecasting going forward is now much more challenging from a financial standpoint,” Hoyer said. “But that’s league-wide. Anyone that says they have a feel for where the nation’s economy and where the pandemic is come next April is lying.”

The Cubs front office already was in a tenuous place financially, its payroll budget stretched past its limit and a threat to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second consecutive season.

And after a quick playoff exit in 2018 followed by the disappointment of missing the playoffs in 2019, every player on the roster was in play for a possible trade over the winter — and even more so at this season’s trade deadline without a strong start to the season.

Now what?

For starters, forget about dumping short-term assets or big contracts for anything of value from somebody’s farm system. Even if baseball can get to this year’s Aug. 31 trade deadline with a league intact and playing, nobody is predicting more than small level trades at that point — certainly not anything close to a blockbuster.

After that, it may not get any clearer for the sport in general, much less the Cubs with their roster and contract dilemmas.

“We have a lot of conversations about it internally, both within the baseball side and then with the business side as well,” Hoyer said. “But it’s going to take a long time and probably some sort of macro things happening for us to really have a good feel for where we’re going to be in ’21 and beyond.”


Cubs GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Cubs GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Veteran umpire Joe West made waves Tuesday downplaying the severity of COVID-19 in an interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. 

“I don’t believe in my heart that all these deaths have been from the coronavirus," West said. "I believe it may have contributed to some of the deaths.”

As far as the Cubs are concerned, those comments don’t represent how to treat the virus. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to ensure everyone treats it with equal severity.

“That’s one of the things we've really tried internally to instill in our players and our coaches,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday, “[that] everyone here has to take it equally [serious].”

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Hoyer noted like the world, MLB isn’t immune to people having different viewpoints on the virus — those who show concern and those who don’t. This echoes comments made by manager David Ross earlier on Tuesday, and Hoyer said those he’s talked to with the Cubs don’t feel the same way as West.

The Cubs had an up close and personal look at pitching coach Tommy Hottovy’s battle with COVID-19 during baseball’s shutdown. It took the 38-year-old former big leaguer 30 harrowing days to test negative, and in the past week many Cubs have said watching him go through that hit home. 

“When you get a 38-year-old guy in wonderful health and he talks about his challenges with it,” Hoyer said, “I think that it takes away some of those different viewpoints.”

To ensure everyone stays safe and puts the league in the best position to complete a season, MLB needs strict adherence to its protocols.

“I think that's one of our goals and one of the things that we feel is vital is that we have to make sure everyone views this the same way, because we can't have a subset of people within our group that don't view it with the same severity,” Hoyer said.

“That’s not gonna work. We're not gonna be successful."